Personal ties can change gay marriage attitudes

May 12, 2012 - 2:09 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In revealing his support for same-sex marriage, President Barack Obama attributed his change in thinking to a series of key conversations and experiences. Talking to members of his staff and gay service members in committed relationships made it more difficult to justify why they should not have the right to marry, he said.

Just as influential in his thinking, according to Obama, were dinnertime conversations with his 13- and 10-year-old daughters, who have friends with two mothers or two fathers.

"It wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently," the president said. "It doesn't make sense to them and, frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."

While separating the personal from the political is impossible in the president's case, others who have moved in the same direction on the issue say they immediately recognized themselves in Obama's remarks. Once comfortably opposed, they found their views shifting as a result of sometimes uncomfortable dialogues taking place at churches, workplaces, soccer fields and statehouses.

"I had the same conversation with my daughter," New York Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, a Democrat representing the Manhattan suburbs in Westchester County. "My daughter told me, 'Mom, you're old fashioned. What difference does it make if people love each other? Everyone should have their rights.' She really just totally disagreed with her mom."

Galef, 72, credits those talks with moving her from voting in 2009 against a bill that would have legalized same-sex unions in the state to voting for a similar bill two years later.

"My daughter, I think, really opened my eyes to the fact that I grew up in a different age and just made it so clear that I wasn't thinking like a more modern person on this topic," she said. "When the president said this, I could just relate to myself having gone through the whole scenario."

Before Obama became the first sitting president to endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples, other politicians had attributed changes of heart on the issue to having gay people leading comfortably conventional lives in their worlds. The leader of the Iowa Senate, Mike Gronstal, held back a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage in his state in 2009 after his daughter changed his mind on the subject. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and San Diego Mayor Jerry Saunders also came out for same-sex marriage after learning their daughters were lesbians.

Gay rights activists have recognized for decades that having a close friend or family member who is gay was a powerful predictor of how Americans felt about gay rights issues. Now that marriage is high on the movement's wish list, they have become even more convinced that sharing stories and common experiences will be key to its success.

"Pretty much everybody these days knows someone who is gay or lesbian, but it is knowing them well, or well enough to have a real conversation about why marriage matters to them, that moves people forward," Marc Solomon, the national campaign manager for Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group that advocates for same-sex marriage and actively encourages gay people to initiate discussions on the topic.

A 2011 poll by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute found that support for gay marriage is twice as high among people who have a close friend or family member who is gay. While 47 percent of Americans favor gay marriage, according to the poll, that number rises to 64 percent among people with intimate ties to gays and lesbians, and falls to 37 percent among respondents without that personal connection.

To be sure, knowing, admiring and even loving someone who is gay is not a foolproof prescription for embracing same-sex marriage.

Robert Tyler, a California lawyer who has helped defend the state's one man-one woman laws, considers some of the opposing gay lawyers to be friends. He respects them as lawyers, as spouses and even as parents. But that respect has not translated into his thinking they should be able to get married.

"I'd take the coat off my back and give it to them if they needed my coat," he said. "Yet at the same time, that doesn't cause me to change my position on the public policy arguments just because I feel that way."

Lutheran Pastor Jim Klosterboer is among those who did change his position — even though, in his case, he told himself 20 years ago that the day his denomination ordained gays would be the day he left his church.

Instead, over the next two decades, the 62-year-old minister in rural Elkader, Iowa, began hearing the stories of gay men and lesbians. Sometimes the people he spoke with were gay, sometimes they were people with gay relatives. The conversations caused him to rethink his long-held views and eventually shifted Klosterboer's stance to a point where he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.

"It was when I could put a face to the story, and I thought, 'You know, I need to relook to see what Scripture says,'" said Klosterboer, minister at Bethany Lutheran Church .

Nora Phemester, 54, a hospice nurse who lives in Wheeling, W. Va., had long supported rights for gay people up to and including adopting children. But she drew the line at marriage, until her grown daughter introduced her in 2010 to a lesbian couple who were raising four children. One of the women was a nurse, like Phemester and her daughter. The other was a Cub Scouts den mother who would eventually be removed from the post because of the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gays troop leaders and members,

"They're bright, very smart, they're giving to the community, they're out there working every day just like everybody else," Phemester said. "So why shouldn't they be allowed to have the same rights and benefits as married couples have, especially for people who are in committed, long-term relationships?"

Such experiences show that the gay rights movement has acquired a powerful tool in advancing the marriage cause, according to Lanae Erickson, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a Washington-based think tank.

Recent campaigns to ban same-sex marriage in states such as California and Maine have relied heavily on messages that children would be negatively affected if gay couples could wed.

"One of people's major concerns about extending marriage to gay couples is that marriage is going to change in some way, that it could be devalued in some way," Erickson said. "There is something about hearing from their kids that reassures them on that point. It makes them realize the kids still have respect for the tradition of marriage, still want to get married themselves and still see gay couples as part of that."

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Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writers Michael Hill and Mike Gormley in Albany, N.Y. and Michelle Price in Phoenix contributed to this story.